The Art of the Cover Song: Gary Moore’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
I was jogging in the Oakland hills the other day, listening to a Pandora shuffle, when a version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” stopped me in my tracks and challenged my long-held theory of cover songs.
Covering another musician’s work can be a perilous proposition. At their best, cover songs create a new relationship with a track and infuse it with added meaning and significance. But at their worst, covers waste your time, leaving you puzzled as to why the artist recorded a version that adds nothing to the original understanding. There is also a risk with covers of entering into a disquieting state of entropy as covers are layered upon covers. Richie Havens’ cover of Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is an example. The track exists for me in a musical black hole, raising the existential question of where does it all end?
Which is why in deciding whether a cover song is worth my limited listening time, I have, over the years, developed a 2-part test: First, is the original song well-known? And second, does the cover track deviate materially from the original? It has long been my position that the best covers are those of obscure tunes that the cover artist completely revamps, and the worst are of well-known tracks rendered in an undifferentiated manner.
For me, the quintessential cover song is Rage Against The Machine’s version of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Rage’s version shatters the original, leaving it unrecognizable. It is hard to imagine two more different musical interpretations of that song. As a testament to the ownership Rage takes of the track, Springsteen, on his recent tour of Australia and New Zealand, performed Rage’s version. Covers like these create an entirely new understanding of the original. I don’t think I had a full sense of the apocalyptic anger in Tom Joad until I heard Rage’s version (although Rage, of course, could transform “Itsy Bitsy Spider” into an anthem for the apocalypse).
Conversely, if the original is well-known, the cover receives heightened scrutiny and had better kick ass. This involves a sliding scale: the more well-known the original is, the more ass the cover had better kick. After all, it is one thing to cover an obscure song blandly on the no harm/no foul principle, but to take on a foundational song of the rock canon takes some chutzpah since it threatens to toy with the musical foundations of millions of people. To survive this test, the cover must deviate materially from the original.
Covers of Bob Dylan tunes provide a useful illustration of this concept. On the one hand, Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is an excellent example of a highly worthwhile cover track. The band completely re-casts the tune from a folk protest to a full-fledged rock anthem, fueled by Slash’s distortion-riddled power chords and Axl’s snarling “hey, hey, … hey, hey, hey” on the chorus. The addition of the backup gospel choir for the bridge and finish is electrifying and masterful, giving added depth and context to the lyrics.
On the other hand, in my view, every Grateful Dead cover of Dylan is wasted effort. It always pained me at Dead shows to suffer through “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” “Queen Jane Approximately” or “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as I waited for “Scarlet Begonias” or “Dark Star.” I really like those classic Dylan songs, but the Dead covered them in a rote way that added nothing to the original.
Which is why I was so skeptical during my jog the other day when “Voodoo Child,” performed by Gary Moore, came through the earbuds. Every rock fan on the planet has some relationship to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”, likely a positive one. Yes, Stevie Ray Vaughn pulled off an exceptional cover of it, but he made every song he touched his own. He is an outlier and I must discard such data points. Let’s recall that the artist under consideration was Gary Moore, not Stevie Ray Vaughn, and I had never heard of Gary Moore. (Who is this Gary Moore with the temerity to cover “Voodoo Child”? It turns out that Moore, who died in 2011, was from Northern Ireland and while highly regarded in Europe, was somewhat under the radar in the States, notwithstanding–or perhaps because of–his sometimes membership in Thin Lizzy.)
In any event, Gary Moore’s version of “Voodoo Child,” recorded live on his 2007 album Blues for Jimi, hewed closely to the original, with the immediately recognizable wah-wah intro, so I reflexively put it into the matrix quadrant reserved for undifferentiated covers of extremely well-known tracks and was about to skip it. That would have been a mistake.
It is perhaps the best version of that song I have heard (and there are lots of versions out there). Moore’s interpretation has a rich fullness of sound and visual quality to it—it comes through in full color while I perceive Hendrix’s version in black and white. The guitar solos are visceral. One sounds like a helicopter taking off, except twice as powerful. Another sounds like a chainsaw cutting through everything in the world that sucks. In the unaccompanied outro solo, Moore flat out leaves the building – you get the sense a bomb could detonate backstage and he wouldn’t notice, he is so utterly lost in his craft (check out the video posted above to see what I mean).
I’m not sure I’m willing to trash my cover song assessment tool yet, but Gary Moore’s version of “Voodoo Child” has forced me to question my rigid application of it and to leave myself open to the possibility that even covers of the foundational classic rock canon can produce occasional brilliance.
Be sure to check out my playlist of the Top Ten Rock ‘n’ Roll Cover Songs.